- The Robert A. Schanke Award-Winning Essay Whispers from a Silent PastInspiration and Memory in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard
The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.WALTER BENJAMIN, ON THE CONCEPT OF HISTORY
Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone. Some will not.NATASHA TRETHEWEY, NATIVE GUARD
As part of the National Civil War Project, in the fall of 2014 the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, partnered with former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to stage her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of poetry, Native Guard.1 Inspired by her youth as the child of a then-illegal marriage between her black mother and white father, Trethewey fuses autobiography with historical meditation on a Civil War soldier’s experiences in the first African American Union troop. Native Guard has been called “a play, a poetry reading, an art installation, a film, a diorama and an immersive experience for the audience.”2 “Theatrical installation” may come closest to defining Trethewey’s stage work, which defies traditional categorization. Trethewey was born on the hundredth anniversary of the [End Page 287] Civil War’s end, and her poetry in performance offers a wellspring for reshaping interactions in the contemporary southern United States.
Employing Walter Benjamin’s image of the angel of history as an analytical touchstone, I engage the tension at play in the first full staging of Native Guard at the Alliance Theatre between personal and collective history, text and stage.3 Similarly, I draw on Hans-Thies Lehmann’s exploration of postdramatic theatre to parse the transition of poetic voice to fixed historical subjectivity when adapted for the stage despite multivalent staging techniques. Moving from historical event to author, performer, and audience, I ask: How might Trethewey’s poetry-in-production work allow theatre scholars to reconsider the foundational dialectic of text-based theatre and its alchemical move from page to stage? What new categories for praxis and study are mobilized by theatrical installations that blend fact and fiction, hybridizing the individual and communal histories of race in the United States? From these questions, I propose that even as the stage performance uses the exact text from Trethewey’s poems with words spoken, sung, and projected, including the beautifully sparse dedication, “For my mother, in memory,” the performance is fundamentally multivocal and in this aural plurality the power of historical question and discovery is unleashed.4 What start as Trethewey’s painful personal reflections become echoes of a larger history of unwitnessed lives and forgotten deaths. In the fusion of poetry and play Trethewey’s Native Guard offers a new medium for discovering the shared history that relentlessly shapes the present of the American South.
To understand this new approach to historical performativity, I first consider the source text of Native Guard, and then I examine Trethewey’s fusion of familial memory with Southern history and the affective power of that collision in the Alliance Theatre’s production. Three conflicts drive Trethewey’s elegiac collection: race and the American South, the death of her mother, and what Trethewey calls the “historical amnesia” that has haunted the unmemorialized yet unforgotten black Union soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guards.5 The collection begins with an opening poem, “Theories of Time and Space,” and follows with parts one and three, which are primarily centered on Trethewey’s life, and a middle section of four poems from a black Union soldier’s imagined journal entries. Like the soldier she channels, Trethewey was born in the Deep South in Gulfport, Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, to Eric Trethewey and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. Trethewey’s birth came one year before the US Supreme Court struck down antimiscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia; her birth certificate, which lists her mother’s race as “colored” and her father’s as “Canadian,” echoes the criminalized ontology to which she was born.6
Trethewey weaves the dangerous aftermath of her parent’s...